BETHESDA, Md. – Beatings and shootings, hunger and disease were part of Alex Hershaft’s daily experiences as a child living in the Warsaw ghetto of Poland.
“You could see things from your windows,” Hershaft said of his childhood during the Nazi occupation. Often it was not safe to go outside; you could get caught in a Nazi round-up, he said.
Hershaft, 62, survived the Holocaust with his mother. His father was killed by the Nazis, along with members of his father’s and mother’s families.
He said the horrors that he witnessed stayed with him as an adult, and eventually led him into a career as an animal rights activist.
“I saw a lot of analogies between what the Nazis did to us and what we’re doing to farm animals,” said Hershaft, the founder and president of the Farm Animal Reform Movement, a national group geared toward getting people to stop eating meat.
For instance, the cattle cars used to transport Jews to concentration camps and to ship cattle from farm to slaughterhouse bear striking similarities, the Bethesda resident said.
Hershaft said for a long time after the war, he questioned why he ate the meat of animals that others killed.
“I had always felt that there was something ethically, or aesthetically … wrong with taking a beautiful, feeling animal, hitting him over the head, and cutting him up into pieces and stuffing the pieces in my face,” Hershaft said.
He made a decision in 1962 not to eat meat. Then, 13 years later, he visited the World Vegetarian Congress. It was his first exposure to organized vegetarianism.
“Up to that time I had been a closet vegetarian,” Hershaft said. But at the congress, Hershaft saw that there were others who felt the same way he did.
It stimulated his thinking. “I reached a point in my life in the late ’70s when I realized what I was doing was just not good enough,” Hershaft said. “I reflected on the major problems that were confronting humanity,” including hunger and disease, and decided animal agriculture was the source of these problems.
In 1976 Hershaft, who had earned a doctorate in chemistry from Iowa State University, founded an educational group. He called it the Vegetarian Information Service. Its emphasis was on teaching people the health benefits of not eating meat.
In 1981, the chemistry teacher and researcher founded the Farm Animal Reform Movement, an educational group focusing on the treatment of animals. He phased out the vegetarian group a few years later.
The year he founded FARM he quit his job with The MITRE Corp., a systems engineering company with an office in McLean. Since then, he has thrown his body and home into the animal rights cause.
He said he has engaged in civil disobedience at two slaughterhouses in Virginia and at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Washington headquarters, blocking entrances to the buildings.
He has cut costs by headquartering FARM in his home. Signs of his commitment abound.
Inside the doorway of his home stands a model of a 16-week- old, black-and-white calf made of wood, chicken wire and fabric. It represents the typical calf sent to slaughter, Hershaft said.
Outside the house, beside the back porch, sits a model of crate in which calves are raised for veal. Hershaft said he has used this crate model at protests in Washington to protest the brutal treatment and killing of animals.
FARM now boasts a national membership of 12,000 people and a staff of five. The nonprofit, public interest corporation is funded by public contributions, Hershaft said.
It runs on a $150,000 yearly budget, which it spends on mailings, advertising, telephone bills and printing, Hershaft said. All of FARM’s staff members, except Hershaft, are paid. He supports himself from returns on investments he made during his science career.
The group holds national educational campaigns such as The Great American Meatout to encourage people to stop eating meat and World Farm Animals Day, to memorialize animals that suffer and die in animal agriculture.
The group also introduces the animal rights issue into the election process. It asks for position papers on animal rights from presidential and local candidates and pushes for planks in the party platform.
Hershaft said he doesn’t really know how successful his efforts have been. “That’s one of the most frustrating aspects of our work,” he said.
“It’s very difficult to measure success. … What you’re doing is distributing information and planting seeds, and you may not be around when the seeds sprout.”
His work has earned him support from other activists, and respect from opponents.
Henry Spira, coordinator for the New York-based Animal Rights International, said Hershaft has helped to mend rifts within the movement. “He always tries to play a role in bringing people together,” he said.
Steve Kopperud, senior vice president of the American Feed Industry Association and president of the Animal Industry Foundation, said he does not agree with Hershaft’s criticisms of the industry. Kopperud said one of the greatest inaccuracies about animal agriculture is that animals kept in housing are automatically abused. But, he said, farmers can control the health, diet and safety of the animals by having them live in enclosed buildings.
Although he does not agree with Hershaft’s opinions or his animal philosophy, Kopperud said the activist is straightforward and “nobly motivated.” He said, “He’s not as outrageous, he’s not as outlandish” as others.